For their commendable return to the Baby Grand, Domino Theatre has tackled big ideas in a befittingly small, yet nonetheless profound, manner. The selection of Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy as their season opener can be credited in large part for this achievement—the script is an undeniably appealing, cutesy crowd-pleaser which remains emotional and enlightened while exploring some of the heaviest and most difficult themes theatre can offer.
This is, however, because Humble Boy is—in every thematic sense except, perhaps, in its conclusion—a modern re-telling of Hamlet: Instead of Denmark, we have middle England; instead of royalty, the middle class; instead of princes and kings, a Cambridge astrophysicist and a beekeeper. A classic Shakespearean plot has been borrowed for a modern British household which, at various times, can be comedic, touching or simply soap opera-esque.
Felix Humble (Scott Arsenault), our portly, 30-something Hamlet, has returned from his research fellowship in astrophysics at Cambridge to his Cotswold village after receiving the news that his father, a high school biology teacher and amateur beekeeper, has died. All the while, he is tormented by his mother’s proposal of remarriage to the boisterous George Pye, whose jolly and clamorous character is so well articulated by Terry Wade’s throaty guffaws.
Felix bumbles his way around stage, as if ashamed of his own appearance, in a state of perpetual embarrassment and fright. His movements are never smooth, his demeanour uptight and he stutters his way through all the B’s in his vocabulary. Seven years ago, he had an affair with Rosie, the daughter of George Pye, and now tries to find comfort through discussions with Jim, the ghostly gardener, while clutching his father’s honey-potted ashes close to his chest.
Like any good, self-secluding astrophysicist of the fictional world, Felix often enlists scientific theory—such as black hole equations and the bumble (or Humble) bees’ mating patterns—to make sense of modern social life. This frequent and unambiguously symbolic use of big intellectualism can, at times, seem out of place and rather overwrought—my main complaint with Humble Boy. But, in another sense, such use eloquently explains the play’s most successful achievement: illustrating that big ideas, whether invoked by an astrophysicist, beekeeper or the Bard himself, can be articulated simply, in plain language, amongst the plainest of circumstances, yet so profoundly.
Liz Schell’s Baby Grand set seems far from the almost palatial gardens and high grass rumoured of the play’s original London run, but is, in its own way, appropriately humble. One can imagine a biology teacher sparing an hour or two every day to tend to his bees and few flowers while his wife indulges in frequent readings of Vogue and powders her recently purchased nose.
Jones appears to be an expert at scribing awkward, hilarious and painful family encounters with quick wit and heart-warming moments of honesty.
Although ostensibly concerned with ideas, it is the rollercoaster of emotions—the audience laughing one moment, crying the next—that makes Humble Boy work. The characters and family dynamics, however strange, are easy to connect with by virtue of their stark sentiments. Despite being inspired by Hamlet, Jones forgoes any obvious connections with the morose aspects of the classic text, instead expanding on the fundamentally human aspects of the plot: the overwhelming sense of absence in the loss and attempted replacement of a father and husband, the repairing of a mother-son relationship and the sheepishness and awkwardness with which an old sexual relationship is resumed.
An intelligent script executed in a satisfactory way, Humble Boy expresses what Hamlet never attempted to communicate—that the most sophisticated concepts can be conveyed by simple people doing simple things, caring for simple bees, from one chuckle, tear or sneer, to the next.
Humble Boy will be playing at the Baby Grand Theatre until September 27. Tickets are available through The Grand Theatre Box office.
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